Sarai Kharbuza — Islamabad’s crumbling historic inn


Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro


Islamabad is relatively a new city. Its history doesn’t stretch beyond 60 years. Yet, it would be wrong to suggest that the area where the Pakistani capital is located doesn’t have a past. The outskirts of Islamabad are dotted with historical monuments. Sectors D and E of the city have remnants dating back to prehistory.

Rapid and unplanned commercialism, mushroom growth of housing societies and construction of infrastructure in and around the city is devouring most of the monuments. One of the baradaris became prey to the development of such housing scheme. This baradari was demolished by Federation of Employees Cooperative Housing Scheme in Baradari village overlooking a pond. Many pre-Mughal monuments were destroyed when the Sectors D-12 was developed.

Of all the different eras, it is the Mughal period to which most of the monuments belong. In a recent excursion, I came across a fascinating caravansarai (roadside inn), located 4km off the GrandTrunk Road.

The serai is believed to have been built by the Mughal emperor Jahangir, but archaeological evidence suggests that it was most likely constructed by the Ghakhar tribe, who were the lords of this area during the Mughal time. The Mughals later made extensions in Sarai Kharbuza.

The serai’s architecture resembles the fortress at Dhan Gali in Kallar Syedan, which was built by Mai Mangho. Dhan Gali served as the third capital of Ghakhars when they ruled much of the present Potohar area. The first capital of the Ghakhars was Pharwala which is believed to have been founded by Hathi  Khan Ghakhar who was the hero of the tribe for giving tough resistance to Babur when he attacked the Pharwala. It is believed that he died fighting the army of Babur.  The grave of Hathi Khan is located in the fort of Pharwala, the second capital of the Ghakhars in Rawat which is believed to have been founded by Sultan Sarang Khan Ghakhar.

The basic structure of Sarai Kharbuza is based on a square, with four octagonal bastions on each side. The Sarai is made out of stone boulders and burnt bricks. The boulders are melon-shaped, thus giving the structure the name ‘Sarai Kharbuza’.  Back when it was functional, the Sarai had two gates, between which there was a bazaar.

The living quarters still retain some of their original decorations and colours, especially the beautifully embellished panels on the alcoves.

There Sarai also has a three-domed mosque right at its centre and was recently repaired by the locals. Some extensions were also made to it. Like the living quarters, the mosque also maintains its originality, with frescoes and splendid ornamentation on the ceilings and the mihrab (arch). The mosque is similar in design to the one believed to be built by Akbar in Kuri, right on the outskirts of Islamabad.

Unfortunately, the Sarai has not been taken care of by the archaeological or cultural authorities of the capital. Today, it is used as living quarters by around 70 families belonging to Khattar, Awan, and Arain castes. The encroachment has resulted in severe deterioration of the Sarai at some places. Some of the old rooms have either been razed or turned into cattle-pen. It’s pity that most of the cultural heritage of the city has been left to the mercy of nature and man who have equally contributed to its destruction and decay. Rawat monuments which include a mosque, fort and tomb of Sultan Sarang  Khan Ghakhar, are just 4km away from Defence Housing Authority phase-II (DHA-II) is also a victim of neglect. It hardly gets the attention of the city managers to turn the site into a popular tourist destination for the capital-based foreigners, the diplomatic community and people of the twin cities. A road that leads to Rawat monuments is encroached by street vendors making virtually impossible for tourists to visit the site.

The Sarai Kharbuza is just one of many caravansarais along the G.T. Road. All these sites need not only to be preserved for their historical value but should be promoted as tourist sites so that the cultural heritage of the area is highlighted. The failure and negligence of the relevant authorities will cause a huge loss.

A number of heritage sites have become the victims of the unplanned urbanisation and commercial greed.

Many such sites were lost when new housing schemes sprung up in and around the city. Baradari, which once dominated the landscape of E-11, was demolished when the Federation of Employees Cooperative Housing Society began developing a housing scheme.

The nearby Buddhist caves of Shah Allah Ditta have also been encroached and illegally occupied by the city elites to turn into a restaurant. Likewise, the rock shelter, the surface of which contains petroglyphs has also been partially damaged during the development of the G-11 sector. It is feared that the Sarai Kharbuza will also face the same fate if the mushroom growth of real estate business is not controlled. Moreover, the city managers should also promote this site as a potential tourist destination as both international as well as domestic tourists are hardly familiar with the secluded Sarai Kharbuza. This can attract those tourists who are bound for Taxila as this Sarai is not far away from the GT Road.

The author is an anthropologist and head of the Department of Development studies at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Islamabad. He may be contacted at

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